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December 19, 2005

He had a dream

There has been much ado about the choice of lead actresses in the film adaptation of Memoirs of Geisha. Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li play geisha; the erstwhile problem being that none are Japanese. Now, this is an absurd non-problem. Or rather, an actual problem masquerading as a non-problem. The non-problem being why on earth this should be an issue in the first place. Patrick Stewart managed to play a French starship captain with a RADA accent, for pity's sake. I do not recall anyone batting an eye, or any other sensory appendage, as a result.* Equally, I would be appalled if anyone were to suggest Michael Dorn could not play an excellent Henry V. I would pay to see that.

Behind this non-problem lurks the actual problem that all too many people believe identity is intrinsic and further that identity dictates ability. SFGate, for example, uses the vile phrase "ethnic slippage" to explain their objection to the casting decision. Yes, I expect there are plenty of people who think "all Asians look alike", as the article puts it. And yes, I imagine the studio was after actresses who might be taken for Japanese by an international audience and to this extent the identity police at SFGate have a point. But then I see no reason Keira Knightley or Reese Witherspoon would not have been interesting choices for a part so their rhetoric on that score fails to convince me. Perhaps the studio reflected some racist bias in its apprehended audience but this is no reason to claim a progressive authority in a position that is yet more racist. It strikes me to be a far more troubling idea that simply because a woman is an actress and Japanese that she should have an intrinsic ability to put herself in the kimono of a girl sold into sexual-slavery in the 1930s. Yes, some people do think "all Asians look alike" but it is a more serious question by far why some should think "all Japanese think alike".

Equally absurd was a CBC Hot Type interview with Arthur Golden which consisted of asking/marveling/sneering how an American Harvard graduate could possibly write a book in the first person about the experiences of a geisha. I offered some sarcastic commentary to my television set; to whit: How could Tolkien possibly have imagined he could write a character from the perspective of a talking-tree? How could Tanya Huff dare to write from the perspective of an undead bastard son of Henry VIII? How can I, as a non-Narnian, possibly empathize with the plight of those troubled by the Ice Queen?

Because ideas are not intrinsic and imagination is more important than identity, folks. A passage from "What I Tell Librarians" in Scatterbrain, another fascinating collection of Larry Niven laundry lists, seems à propos.

Why should librarians give special consideration to science fiction?
I can tell you something specific.
It's very difficult for a black man to get out of South-Central Los Angeles, and get out civilized. Women may find it easier, for all I know. The only men I know who have escaped, all began reading Robert Heinlein at age ten.
Of those men, I've written nine books with Steven Barnes. I see Ken Porter every few weeks. The third guy was installing my copier when the subject came up. It's a tiny sample, and all three men were in their forties.
So even if I'm right, the book that rescues a ten-year-old child from a bad environment may not be Heinlein anymore.
Robert Heinlein's planets have become fantasy due to half a century of exploration by NASA probes. He was always a teacher of moral lessons, but if his worlds have become unrealistic, his lessons will be suspect too - though to me they still hold true.
Forty years ago, Ken Porter was a black kid growing up in South-Central. Ken's peers tried to tell him that no white man could ever understand what he was going through. Ken knew they were wrong because he had read Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein. Robert Heinlein was white, but he understood Ken Porter perfectly, and Ken knew it.

*I find it hard to imagine a pre-Tony Blair American television audience accepting a very British starship captain on the Enterprise and expect some Revolutionary War romanticism dictated a French identity for an obviously Shakespearian fellow. Though it is equally hard to imagine Patrick Stewart playing his supposedly French captain with an actual French accent. "We have engaged, ze Borg!" has a different ring to it, for example.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at December 19, 2005 08:54 AM

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And would he have had Data reading Balzac?

Posted by: The_Campblog [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 19, 2005 01:51 PM

They said the same thing about Remains of the Day: how could this Jap write so convincingly about uptight Brits? Hello - fiction is impersonation. But of course the PC commissars were up in arms a few years ago when a novel by a Latino won a major award, only to be exposed as a pen name by a white writer. Some said to rescind the award! Because in identity politics, the merit of a work is based not in the work, but the PC credentials of the artist.

I said on my site that if one were to follow the logic of the Geisha critics, you'd have to conclude that Japanese actresses should only play Japanese roles. This is how identity politics always ends up hurting the group it claims to speak for.

Another critic said Chinese actresses can't speak English with a Japanese accent, which is idiotic, because none of those characters would have been speaking English anyway.

Posted by: beautifulatrocities [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 19, 2005 02:11 PM

I always justified Stewart's accent by pretending that in the future England had conquered the French.

Posted by: cambrarian75 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 19, 2005 05:39 PM


Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 19, 2005 06:06 PM

Recall the idiotic 'scandal' about Margaret Cho's wretched 3-minute sitcom, which had NON-Koreans playing Koreans! How French!

Posted by: beautifulatrocities [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 19, 2005 06:54 PM

To say that 'all Asians look alike' could be racist if the meaning is that Asians do not have any strong individual characteristics (i.e. it is impossible to tell any two Asians apart). But the constant denying of the similarties between Chinese, Koreans and Japanese is a root cause of greater racism. As a witness to vile stereotypical caricatures of all three peoples (in various street protests and most recently in racist manga comics) occasionally suggesting that they 'all look the same' isn't a bad thing. If they could admit that they are all pretty much of the same stock genetically would likely lead to far fewer Chinese and Japanese, for instance, refering to the other side as 'dogs.' For that matter the Brits and the Irish also 'look the same.'

Posted by: myrick [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 20, 2005 02:35 AM